Equality is winning, even when the victories seem like losses.
Increasingly, gay people are being accepted into society’s mainstream. Legal barriers remain, but they are falling.
There are setbacks — teachers fired from parochial school jobs and petty harassment of people like Taylor Ellis, a junior at Sheridan High School.
The Yellowjacket yearbook staff wrote profiles of six students with personal challenges. One was Ellis, who’d made the decision, with some trepidation, to come out as gay. He found fellow students generally welcoming and is happier living openly. He’s joined the National Guard and will go to basic training this summer to serve his country.
Schools administrators decided his story was unsuitable for a student publication, despite a state law that severely limits the occasions when school officials can censor student work. (Mostly they may act only to prevent libel, invasion of privacy or inciting of illegal acts.) “Too personal,” said the principal. Superintendent Brenda Haynes said the censorship was “consistent with the mission” of the district. She didn’t explain how.
The Arkansas Times broke the news in Arkansas after a student press organization wrote about it. TV stations picked up the story. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization headed by Arkansas native Chad Griffin, a former Sheridan elementary student, rallied to the cause.
The yearbook has gone to press. Some civil libertarians think a First Amendment lawsuit, should the student journalists file one, could force the district to print and distribute a supplement.
Hannah Bruner, who wrote the profile and has stood upright beside Ellis, needs no court validation of her integrity. Her article on Ellis has now reached tens of thousands, reprinted first in the Arkansas Times and then many other places with enormous reach.
Publication or no publication, lawsuit or no lawsuit, Taylor Ellis and Hannah Bruner have won.
They have won, as countless others have won. People who step out of the closet and into the sunlight have made America understand that gay people are our friends, neighbors, colleagues and relatives. It is easy to fear and loathe the unknown. It’s harder to despise real people, though undeniably Sheridan and the rest of the world number many still eager to condemn. The national media attention inspired some backlash against Ellis from classmates.
But, increasingly, it is the condemnatory who are being driven into closets. Just the other day, the CEO of Chick-fil-A acknowledged that little good had come of having his fast-food chain identified as a symbol of intolerance toward gay people. For every person waving a chicken nugget in support of discrimination against gay people, the spectacle left others with little appetite for the chain’s unremarkable chicken.
The world is nearly at the point that gay epithets are as unacceptable in polite company as racial epithets. Taylor Ellis and people like him have made that possible. See, too, the steadily rising poll numbers for equality, in employment and in marriage.
Holdouts, including the Sheridan school superintendent and some brutish kids, remain. But even in small town Sheridan, with powerful conservative churches, the high school tells the story. The kids know Taylor Ellis is gay. Most of them say, “So what?”
A civil liberties lawyer who’s battled bullying among children says the situation hardly surprises her. Most bullying cases aren’t a problem because of kids. School officials are the problem. They either tolerate bullying by a few or, worse, they are bullies themselves.
The Sheridan school superintendent decided that Taylor Ellis wouldn’t be allowed to talk about who he was in HER school district. But if this bully thinks she won it’s because her only source of information is the censored Sheridan High Yellowjacket yearbook. The worldwide web went to press before the yearbook did.